Midland County Search and Rescue is there when you need them

“Can I have your attention? I just got some information from the family. One boy’s  name is Tom, the other boy’s name is Joseph..”    Those are the words of Mark Walker, a member of the Midland County Search and Rescue team, at the start of their field training program held on a sunny but chilly Saturday morning at the beginning of April.  Walker is playing the role of the sheriff.

A group of 13 volunteers has gathered on a farm in Midland County, a few miles outside of the City of Midland. Their goal in this training program is to find two young boys who went missing overnight while visiting the farm that’s surrounded by forests.

The Midland County Search and Rescue team gathers information before they begin their search.
Kevin Barnum is the search manager for the day.  Barnum, Walker, and the other volunteers, most dressed in blaze orange Search and Rescue garb, stand in a circle as they develop their plan to search for the boys. One volunteer asks, ““Do they have any favorite areas that they like to hang out?” They gather as much information as they can about the missing boys and the farm. Walker, who developed the day’s scenario, says, “They’ve been out there all night. It got cold out last night.” The volunteers break up into four teams, each made up of two to three persons to begin the search on foot. They have assigned areas to cover.
Mark Walker at his post inside the Search and Rescue trailer
The remaining volunteers head to the Search and Rescue trailer that serves as the center for communications, operations, and planning.  The trailer is owned by Walker. He works as a building contractor. The trailer features work stations with large monitors and a communications system using radios and cellular phones. Walker notes they first started running operations out of a car, then a van, followed by a tent, and now the trailer.

If this was a real scenario, Midland County Search and Rescue (MCSAR) would be called out by Midland County Central Dispatch at the request of the Sheriff’s Department or the City of Midland Police Department. A sheriff’s deputy, Lance Beyerle, is the president of MCSAR. Barnum has volunteered with the group for twelve years. He serves on the board of directors.  He’s now retired but worked for CASE Systems for 25 years and prior to that, he co-owned and managed an appliance sales and service business in Midland.  

Barnum says MCSAR is called upon eight to ten times per year, with half of those searches happening in Midland County. They are also dispatched to find persons in counties that don’t have their own search and rescue teams. He says the missing person is typically very young or very old and may also have some mental impairment including dementia. Barnum says, “Families need an answer. You always hope to be able to find the person and return them to the family, but sometimes you have a negative outcome. It’s important to give the family closure at what is a low point in their lives.”

The MCSAR takes a scientific approach to their searches.  Two books, “Lost Person Behavior,” by Robert J. Koester and “Fundamentals of Search and Rescue,” produced by the National Association for Search and Rescue,  are valuable resources. Koester’s book is based on the study of thousands of missing person cases and features behavioral profiles of persons who go missing.  Barnum notes they begin a search within a 300-meter radius of the missing person’s last known point. He says about 50 percent are found within that radius.
That percentage goes up if the person is a child
but Barnum adds, “A 300 meter radius is a lot of acres.” 

Team C or Team Charlie has two volunteers on this April morning, Cindy Vickery and Stacie Scherman. They search the west side of the property. Scherman says, “I’m thinking about what little boys would like to do. They like to climb in trees.” After being on foot for 15 minutes, Vickery radios into the operations trailer, “This is team Charlie. We've reached a decision point. We have reached a junction with another trail, heading north.”
Vickery and Scherman search the west side of the property.
Vickery is a personal trainer and volunteers with several organizations. Vickery joined MCSAR in the fall of 2018. She says, “I saw it in the paper. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was an ultra runner, like being out in the woods. It’s fascinating what you get to learn.” This training program was Scherman’s first time out. She owns Nor’East Outdoors, a kayak rental company in Midland. Scherman says, “I love the outdoors and I had an interest in law enforcement and doing something with my interests.”

Barnum says MCSAR has 25-30 volunteers, with most still working. Five are retired. He says it’s a 50/50 split of men and women. They’re always looking for volunteers, who have an interest in serving the public and being outside. A volunteer must meet several requirements including passing a police background check and completing field support training. Over sixty percent of their volunteers have met the requirements for SARTECH II, a national certification to be a search and rescue technician. They must attend a six day class and pass a test. MCSAR will pay for the training. Only six people in the state of Michigan have Professional Search and Rescue certification. Three are from Midland County: Barnum, Walker, and one of the group’s founders, John Hutcheson. MCSAR was formed in 2009.

Barnum says most volunteers have their own gear but MCSAR can provide backpacks. They also have a supply trailer that is brought to the staging area. MCSAR’s funding comes from donations by individuals and organizations. A family in Bay City donates money from an annual golf outing started after the MCSAR searched for their missing father.  They also receive grants for equipment.
They’re always looking for volunteers, who have an interest in serving the public and being outside.
In this early spring training scenario, Team C navigates along a trail in the woods, that, in some places, has icy, vernal pools. During a pause, Vickery communicates with the operations trailer and reports to Scherman, ““They found one of our subjects. They instructed us to search a 100-meter circle around that.”  They later see the child sized dummy lying on the bank of a stream that was found by another team. The search wraps up and the teams are called back to the staging area after being out on the farm for about 75 minutes.

The group then conducts what’s called a “hot wash” or post-incident analysis. They again gather in a circle.  Paul Royce, a Team D member, shares, ““It’s good to get out in the field and put feet to the ground.” Mark McPherson says, after just his second timeout, “”Turn around and look where you came from, it’s a different perspective. That’s how we saw one of the (boys) backpacks.” Scherman says, “I learned a lot, impressed by the organization.” MCSAR will meet again on the first Saturday in May, when they’ll focus on communications.  Besides other rural locations, they’ve also held field training searches within the city of Midland.

Kevin Barnum, search manager, leads the "hot wash" at the end of the training program.
Barnum offers this advice. First, if someone goes missing, notify the authorities as soon as possible. He says, “Time is not a friend of search and rescue.” Second, “If you’re headed into the woods, take a whistle and a big trash bag. (If you’re lost)  Rip a hole in it (and put it over your body). It traps a lot of heat. It can save your life if it’s cold outside.” Finally, “If you know you’re lost, just stop moving…We have a hug-a-tree program for kids…we tell them, ‘Stop, stay near a tree’.”

To learn more about Midland County Search and Rescue or to sign up to become a volunteer, go to: www.midlandsar.org.


Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020, "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."